2013 April 12 • Friday
In The Great Lie (1941) Mary Astor and Bette Davis are both in love with airplane pilot George Brent. The only reason Brent hasn't married Davis is because he likes to party. On one such drunken spree in New York he ends up marrying Mary Astor, a famous concert pianist who also likes to party.
Brent sobers up and realizes that he'd be better off cleaning up his act and marrying Davis, who is cast against type as a demure and wholesome young woman. (I don't think I’ve ever seen Davis "prettier" than she is in this movie. She can still do amazing things with a cigarette, though.)
Brent's marriage to Astor turns out to be void since Astor's divorce hasn't gone through yet. She'll be officially divorced next Tuesday. Brent, who is regretting his drunken nuptials, offers to marry Astor officially next Tuesday but Astor says she's got an important gig in Philadelphia. Brent insists that she has to choose between her performance and their wedding. She goes to Philadelphia and Brent goes to Maryland, where he marries Davis.
With Davis's encouragement Brent does some aviation thing as part of the war effort and ends up crashing, presumed dead in South America. (Much the same thing happened to Emma Peel's husband.)
Then Astor shows up pregnant, giving Davis fair warning that she intends to use the child to get Brent back. When she finds out that Brent is dead, Astor has no intention of keeping the child, but Davis makes a deal with her. Let Davis have Brent's child to raise as her own and Davis will provide for Astor's financial security later in life when her career as a pianist might dwindle.
And this is where the story really starts….
This excellent drama has a twist every five minutes or so and buries recent popular American dramatic television series that take a hundred hours to accomplish what The Great Lie does in about a hundred minutes.
But The Great Lie has its problems. Astor's character is a woman with a career who inhabits the city. Her name is Sandra Kovack, which signals recent European immigrant, probably Jewish. In case you miss this point, the only piece we hear her perform—and we hear it several times—is Dvorak's Symphony for the NewWorld.
She likes cities—New York, Philadelphia or Sydney, Australia—and the filmmakers make this association very clear.
She’s a rootless cosmoplitan, in other words, and she wants to wear the pants in her marriage. She's become a major player in a man's world. She's also just been divorced. In a 1941 Hollywood movie, these are not good things.
Davis's character, on the other hand, lives in an idyllic country retreat in Maryland. Davis's house looks like a former plantation and Davis herself is surrounded by simple-minded and idolatrous African-American servants, Hattie McDaniels chief among them.
Davis's character is a WASP goddess, representing a certain kind of old-fashioned, white, conservative American ideal. While Astor is always in some kind of gown, Davis is more often in riding clothes, all pure, rustic healthiness. No drunken binges for her.
The best scenes in the movie are those between Davis and Astor, both phenomenally great actresses. If you haven’t read The Maltese Falcon than you have to see John Huston's movie of it at least twice to realize what an amazing tight-rope act of a performance Mary Astor pulls off in it. Bette Davis's reputation speaks for itself.
In The Great Lie these two virtuosos work together astonishingly well, neither trying to steal scenes from the other. They both seem very secure in the knowledge that they complement and harmonize with each other.
It's too bad that they both have to love George Brent, who's rather dull. A stronger actor in the role might have proved distracting, though. This is what used to be called a "women's picture". Interesting men would just get in the way.